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Some words from the Southern Hemisphere

by jimbob72 

Posted: 24 November 2003
Word Count: 2477
Summary: Brazil and Patagonia (some simple travel dispatches).

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If Bolivia is cold then Brazil is most assuredly HOT. The sun beats down interminably, the terrain rolls and undulates as if molten, occasionally punctuated with smooth brown monoliths, roads cutting deep gashes into the rich red soil. When the few clouds break and a warm shower bathes the land it appears to bleed.

Much of Brasil has been stripped of its natural blanket of foliage, from the Atlantic forest to the jungle of the Amazon. As a consequence it is often dusty and barren. Yet you can feel the latent power of life trying to break through and as soon as a patch of trees is cleared new growth begins to appear. In the Amazon the slash-and-burn of elementary geography lessons is still practiced by manioc root farmers. The land is used for six months and then left to regrow. It takes just 2 years for a canopy of trees to cover the once scarred earth.

Brazil is also a mighty big place. At first I though I was suffering Fat Leg Syndrome but then realised it was just temporary swelling caused by spending 30 hours at a time sitting on buses.

The initial welcome in Rio, having flown across the glittering Andes from Santiago, was inauspicious. Greeted by low drizzling cloud and reduced to the state of 'If you wave that card in front of my face again I will staple it to your testicles' by the taxi touts in the arrivals lounge, I thought that it was set to be as depressing as Lima. But oh Rio, I'm sorry. On the second morning the clouds broke, Christ the Redeemer appeared arms spread wide and the parade of scantily clad sun-worshippers began.

Rio is a cliché of course, but it deserves the repetition. The star attractions live up to their billing, albeit with a heavy gloss of tourist veneer, and it genuinely feels like a living city rather than a film set. Life is real and death is common. In a city of 8 million people, over 7,000 are murdered or 'disappear' every year. The affluence of the beach sides is vividly counter pointed by the steeply climbing Favelas which rise from behind Copacabana and Ipanema like noxious exhaust fumes.

Next door to Rio is the vast, sprawling urban nightmare that is Sao Paulo. 20 million call it home and I'm still trying to work out why.

Much further up the coast is the spicy capital of Bahia state, Salvador. A melting pot of African and Latin American flavours, a picturesque city of beaches, pastel colours, and packs of tourists out hunting for tasteless souvenirs. One steamy night, when the old city came alive to the sound of tribal drummers and the groups of pale, ageing package-goers were having seizures trying to keep the rhythm, a man with designs on Formula 1 drove us to a secret venue where the traditional ceremony of Candomble was in swing. A fusion of voodoo, Catholicism and general inebriation, it promises to drive evil spirits from body and mind. Arriving at night in an increasingly unnerving part of town we tottered down crumbling concrete steps, sets of eyes assessing our net worth, and stopped in front of ramshackle building. Our host took us to one side before whispering conspiratorially "Tonight, you will see homosexuals!". When we failed to recoil in abject horror, he continued more vehemently "But when the drumming stops, they will become men!!".

And what drumming. Just one man, but he beat the patterns of a dozen. Some rather round women and two - how shall we say - 'dainty' men circled what appeared to be an old school desk on which were placed several symbolic items, and occasionally cried out and fell to the floor before scrambling up and being mopped with a dripping cloth. After two hours of this and having been personally 'cleansed' by whom I supposed to be the spiritual mother of the congregation, we left and returned to sanity.

Manaus – jungle city. Where the ink-black Rio Negro and the muddy-brown Rio Solimoes meet to form the Amazon proper, their waters running side by side, unmixed, for many miles before finally merging. On arrival at the hostel I was met by a grinning midget with approximately four teeth who introduced himself as Wilson. He told me that his chronic cocaine habit had recently been treated and his teenage wife and child lived with him next door. He seemed so respectable that I didn't hesitate to ask for his services as a guide and set off for four days in the jungle.

Four days of washing and swimming in a piranha and caiman infested river, of eating nothing but things caught in the forest and water, of trekking for hours through tangled and insect infested undergrowth. So naturally I was surprised when I got ill on returning to Manaus.
Wilson insisted on treating me, not with conventional medicine, but with some herbs carefully selected at the local Indian market, one of which tasted like fermented grass, the other a little tarter than battery acid. When his friend tried to convince me I had a parasitic worm which would have to be extracted, I was ferried to the hospital for a sane diagnosis. In the Amazonas General Hospital, they gave me a drip and two injections and left me to wander around with a tube sticking out of my arm. At one point a helper led me into a room full of pallid people all staring blankly at a Portuguese soap opera. A few moments later a nurse came in, told the man off and led me back to the main treatment area. I was grateful as I had begun to suspect it was an area set aside for terminal patients.

Once my eyes could focus again (not sure what they gave me, but it was good) I was set free. Before I left I wandered past the consultation rooms, all of which had their doors wide open. In one a cluster of doctors crowded round a chest x-ray and were discussing a cloudy, lozenge-shaped mark on the lungs while a woman wept uncontrollably in the corner and various passers by lent by the doorway listening transfixed. Privacy clearly is not a Brazilian thing.

After a brief stop in Brasilia, having flown through a huge row of thunderstorms blinking like a celestial pinball machine, the path led westward to Cuiaba and the baking tray of the Pantanal. 42 degrees and all pervading humidity. The weakness of altitude replaced by the lethargy of heat. In the Pantanal a wonderful menagerie of exotic creatures, living side by side with cattle ranchers, strut around waiting for the zoom lenses to point their way. Top wildlife moment was chancing upon a Tapir grazing in the waterlillies. Marcio, the guide, exclaimed "You are very lucky!" before gunning the boat's engine and racing towards the terror-stricken creature which promptly ran off into the bankside undergrowth before I had a chance to get a picture. Idiot.
The final stop in Brasil was Foz do Iguacu, on the tripartite border with Argentina and Paraguay. The falls are magnificent and made me feel utterly insignificant. Not hard I hear you cry, but standing virtually underneath such an enormous volume of water hurtling to earth, surrounded with beautiful unspoilt rainforest, makes you want to crawl into a little ball, hoist the white flag, and admit that nothing we make will ever threaten the majesty of the natural world.
Nice way to finish. A little hop, skip and a jump (well, without the skip cos Immigration were watching), it was over into Argentina (again).

Brasil is rotund (like many of its people I'm afraid to say), lush (ditto), taxing, hot, spectacular and emotionally charged. I have barely scratched the surface and yet feel I know it better than some of the other countries I have visited. It responds well to visitors and it rewards those prepared to stray just a little from the beaten track with unforgettable sights and unique experiences. Having said that, I was absolutely knackered when I left and it has taken me this long (nearly 2 weeks) to recharge enough to write this note.
I have less than 2 months left on this fascinating continent and I'm inwardly dreading the day I have to leave.

Argentina & Chile

This is a place of reflection. Where the Austral sun bathes in the mercury lap of the southern seas, where an icy breath buffs the land to a shine and scuds lilac clouds across an upturned sky.

Patagonia is not a country, or a political region. It's too big to constrain with boundaries. In fact it's so big Argentina and Chile decided to share it, neatly dividing up its best bits and then squabbling over where the border was supposed to go. The canny Chilenos managed to offload the millions of acres of virtually useless scrub and nearly every year Argentina wakes up and finds another picturesque island has mysteriously changed hands.

On the western side, the tail of the Andes curls round in the shape of a tear, the land rolling away to the north-east over a flat, treeless plain which stretches for hundreds of kilometres. The jagged granite teeth of Torres del Paine and Fitzroy national parks gape at the heavens open mouthed, glacial tongues spewing out electric blue bergs which bob out into lakes the colour of milk.

My journey in Patagonia started around 1,000km south of Buenos Aires, in Puerto Madryn, where Welsh settlers landed in the 19th century in search of (more) sheep country. Today P.Madryn is an odd mix of frontier-town austerity and quaint little Welsh tea rooms, where you can relive the Valleys with Mr and Mrs Pablo Jones.
The real centres of attention however, and the reason anyone braves the smell from the fish meal and aluminium plants, are the elephant seals and southern right whales which frolic in the cold waters off the Peninsula Valdes, huge blubber-sacks, spouting and farting while gaping visitors reel off the celluloid.

Further south (another 1000km) and towards the western mountain chain, lie the main Patagonian attractions. The Perito Moreno glacier covers 260 square kilometres and presents a terminal wall of ice 70 metres high which creaks and groans as car-sized lumps of vivid cyan ice topple into the melt water lake. 37 people have died since 1970 from flying ice chips while marvelling at its unearthliness.

In the same region is the Fitzroy national park with its namesake mountain towering above the surrounding forests. This is border country and most transport routes involve at least one laborious crossing. While the Argies may feel pretty smug at having the world's most photogenic ice cube and a big pointy mountain, Chile lays claim to arguably the second most evocative vista in South America (Machu Pikachu being numero uno). Torres del Paine national park lives up to its reputation. It looks like the world that Collins, Coleridge and De Quincey might have conjured up in their opiate-driven dreams. Emerald green lakes and soaring jagged peaks circled by majestic condors, babbling brooks meandering through lush valleys and cascading waterfalls drifting in the wind.
Still, it's difficult to appreciate the splendour of such countryside when every step is agonisingly softened by various bulbous skin-bags of pus. Blisters and chafing, the hiker's immortal enemies.

Perceptions of two nations. Chile reminds me increasingly of Eastern Europe. It cloaks a stable, if plodding economy (all too rare around here) with austerity but a strict and conservative society can't hide the warmth of the people. It views Argentina with barely concealed loftiness, hard working and thrifty, a life of relative comfort while it's neighbour wallows helplessly on the morning after, numb from indulgence and corruption, nursing an almighty economic hangover and gagging for an IMF Alka Seltzer.

Argentina is the most accessible of South American countries. It most resembles the culture and variety of Europe, the majority of citizens having some Italian, Spanish or German ancestry. But it can't shake off the chaos of this Latin maelstrom. Every attempt to be legitimate, to be progressive, to be a world player, is thrown off kilter by the need to make a quick buck, to take the short cut, to find the easy way up. Politics is riddled with ineptitude and corruption and the horror of the past still echoes on the streets of the towns and cities. Every week the mothers of those 'disappeared' in the 1970's walk round a square in Buenos Aires, just to make sure no one forgets.

Bariloche is a case in point. One of the centres of the Lake District, a region blessed with Alpine beauty, Bariloche keeps on turning, churning out the steak, wine and country pursuits, but the cracks are beginning to show. For a town of its modest size, there are a surprising number of homeless and children seeking handouts, derelict half-built hotels and the general flotsam of hard times. The pleasure-seekers are no longer the middle classes, but the upper tier of Argentinian society and the extranjeros or 'foreigners'. Like Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, a two-tier price system is starting to appear - gringos wield the economic muscle, so they are taxed accordingly.

But despite its troubles, Argentina still possesses a vast trove of natural treasures. It's a relaxing and yet thrilling country. I have respected it accordingly with the largest portion of my trip.

Chile on the other hand is more measured, more content to get on with its business while making just enough room for a few extra people to come and visit. The island of Chiloe, just south of Puerto Montt, is so like the west of England that, for me, the sudden pace of travel slowed to a crawl, fishing boats chugging up green river estuaries reminiscent of southern Devon and Cornwall, wide flat beaches of mud and rising tides fading under a misty, setting sun, smoke rising from cottages, dogs barking in gardens of flowers and willow. A time warp. A home from home.

From Chiloe, from the Lake District, through the granite towers and ice caps of southern Patagonia, the road heads south to where the ferry crosses the Magellan straights into the Land of Fire. At the end of the world, lies Ushuaia. An Argentinian town marooned beyond a tract of Chile on the island of Tierra del Fuego. A town of corrugated houses in primary colours, of dusty streets and a surrounding crown of snow-capped mountains. In Ushuaia, the most southerly town in the world, the Pan American highway ends and begins, 18,000kms of tarmac and dirt track leading to the water's edge, to a headland where the sky meets the ocean. Here, the lukewarm sun reflects from the lapping water just 900 kms from Antarctica.

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 12:18 on 27 November 2003  Report this post
I've travelled somewhat but not in South America. These pieces made me renew the oft-uttered pledge to myself that I should go there. Much travel writing is dull and needlessly didactic; this is rich and very lively. I love the broad sweep of it. Yes, there were many moments during reading when I wanted to know more but I suppose this is why these pieces are so effective; they are not total accounts for the chair-bound but appetite whetters. The tourist offices of Brazil, Argentina and Chile should pay for them to be reproduced and circulated.

Incidentally, if you are pushing the pieces out to potential publishers I noticed one small typo - in the 7th paragraph of the Brazil piece there's an extra 'the' on the third line.

But...very enjoyable. Lovely stuff. Thank you.


sue n at 21:09 on 27 November 2003  Report this post
Hi Jimbob
Having travelled in South America,I like the way you give a tanalising flavour of the countries. I was in Argentina before the crash, when Buenos Aries still emitted the proud arrogance of a European aristocratic dynasty in decline. I empathise with your desciption of how insignificant a mere mortal feels when facing the power and the glory of the Iguazu Falls.
Lively enjoyable writing

jimbob72 at 09:00 on 28 November 2003  Report this post
Thanks Richard, Sue

These were written while I was there, and served as my group email back to friends and family. So I guess they come across as a bit rapid-fire (most people's email attention span is somewhat brief). I don't intend to publish them - I think they're best left as my travel journal which I'll no doubt come across hidden away at the back of a hard-drive sometime later in life. I have dabbled with idea of writing some proper travel pieces which concentrate on one particular place or event - but I've yet to put fingers to keyboard...


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